Why some colleges and universities are calling to ‘Ban the Box’ on college applications

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Institutions that use the Common Application — such as Syracuse University — still ask applicants about their criminal record histories.

As high school seniors this spring decide the colleges they’ll attend in the fall, some may have diminished options because of a controversial question on the Common Application.

Institutions that use the Common Application — such as Syracuse University — still ask applicants about their criminal record histories. The question on the Common App requires students to mark a box if they have had any criminal history.

The Common App, which represents more than 700 different colleges and universities, introduced the question in 2006. Some universities across the country have demanded that the question be removed in efforts known as “Ban the Box,” arguing that it unfairly targets minority students and prevents those students from achieving higher education.


For the 2017-18 application cycle, the Common Application announced that introductory text and frequently asked questions would be added, as well an option for students to view a college’s policies on criminal history and school discipline questions.

But Marsha Weissman, a senior policy fellow and founder of the Syracuse-based Center for Community Alternatives, said these changes won’t make much of a difference.

Often schools don’t have strict policies in place to address criminal records. Seventy-three percent of colleges and universities collect high school disciplinary information and 89 percent use it to make admissions decisions. But only 25 percent have formal policies to guide their use of it and 30 percent have trained staff to interpret it, according to a 2015 report from the Center for Community Alternatives.

“Telling a prospective student you can find out what the school’s policy is, is pretty useless if the school actually doesn’t have any written policies,” Weissman said.

SU does not have the option to omit or modify the criminal record question since it is a member of the Common App system, said Maurice Harris, dean of admissions, in a statement. It has included the question on its admissions application since it began using the Common App. A student checking the box on the application, though, does not disqualify the student and they are given other opportunities to explain the information, Harris explained.

“We have found this question to be of value,” Harris said. “As a school that utilizes holistic review, information about a candidate’s background … enables us to make sound admissions decisions as we enroll the incoming class each year.”

A 2014 study found that 35 percent of institutions surveyed in 2010 denied admission to an applicant because of criminal history.

The biggest problem with the criminal record question is that it denies access to college education for people who would otherwise be qualified, said Melanie Steinhardt, senior associate of development at the College & Community Fellowship, which supports formerly incarcerated women.

“(It) perpetuates the cycles of poverty and trends of poverty for that reason, and it also perpetuates these really harmful stereotypes of people with criminal justice convictions,” Steinhardt said.

In a separate report, the Center for Community Alternatives found that two of every three students who check the box on a felony conviction question don’t end up finishing the application, known as a “chilling effect.” The report also noted that the criminal justice system incarcerates significantly higher numbers of black and Hispanic people.

Supporters of the question have argued it provides information about safety on campus, but there is no correlation between criminal history and crime on a college campus, Weissman said. A 2013 study from the University of Colorado Denver found that about 3 percent of college seniors who “engaged in misconduct” reported criminal histories.


Instead, students are often subject to “humiliating” obstacles after they check the box, Steinhardt said. Colleges will ask for rap sheets, sealed juvenile records or letters of recommendations from the warden of the prison or jail, she said, and there is no standardized protocol for dealing with it.

Weissman said that “two wrongs don’t make a right,” arguing that the country needs to work on redoubling efforts to reduce racial discrimination of all forms. Ultimately, she said, criminal record questions reflect a deeper issue of discrimination in the United States.

“Using criminal records to keep people out of normative social activities is keeping them locked in second-class citizenship, rather than giving folks a second chance,” Weissman said.

Under former President Barack Obama’s administration, a regulation was finalized that mandated that only after a job has been offered can the federal government question applicants about criminal histories, according to The Washington Times.

Obama also initiated the Fair Chance Higher Education Pledge in June 2016, in which 25 universities pledged to “reduce barriers to a fair shot at a second chance.” The State University of New York was one of the signees of the pledge. In September 2016 the SUNY system voted to remove the question on its applications, the first higher education system to do so.

New York University also announced last August that it will ignore questions about criminal history on the Common Application, instead focusing on questions about violent incidents. NYU was also one of the signees of the Fair Chance pledge.

Steinhardt said that President Donald Trump has not explicitly stated his stances on criminal record questions for college applications, but the federal government isn’t the most important stakeholder. Rather, private entities, like the Common Application, need to remove the question from their applications, she said.

It is a “no brainer” that increasing access to education for people involved in the criminal justice is beneficial, Steinhardt said.

“Education is a transformational thing,” Steinhardt said. “And education is a human right. It should not be a privilege, and we should not be creating collateral consequences where after people have paid their debt to society, they are still held back by so many other factors just like this.”

Graphics by Emma Comtois | Digital Designer


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